timetochangeAverage levels of discrimination against people with mental health problems declined by 11.5% in the years 2008-2011, a study of the first phase of anti-stigma campaign Time to Change has found.

The study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that there has been a significant reduction in discrimination from friends (14% reduction), family (9%) and in social life (11%). However, discrimination has not yet improved among health professionals, including mental health professionals.

Within the campaign target audience there has also been a significant increase in willingness to live with someone with a mental health problem in the future (15%). This suggests that change is happening within personal relationships.

The research, led by Dr Claire Henderson and Professor Graham Thornicroft from the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, also found that 3% more people using mental health services now say that they don't experience any discrimination at all compared with 2008.

Public attitudes to mental health

In addition, the researchers found that discrimination in the workplace has declined as well, and employers are more aware of common mental health problems and have more policies in place to support people with them than in 2006.

However, changes to public attitudes have been more fragile, with some of the improvements noted between 2009 and 2010 dropping back in 2011. This suggests that the unfavourable economic climate is limiting more positive change, and is consistent with evidence that hostile behaviour towards other groups of people with disabilities has increased since 2010. 

In the media, newspapers published a greater proportion of anti-stigmatising articles between 2008 and 2011, but there was no significant reduction in the amount of stigmatising articles. However, there was a decrease in the proportion of articles about people with mental health problems posing a danger to others, and an increase in people with mental health problems being quoted as sources.

Dr Henderson said: “There is evidence that both the quality and quantity of social contact between people with mental health problems and others is increasing. Our evaluation shows that Time to Change is helping to reduce mental health stigma and discrimination within informal relationships such as friends and family, who are the commonest sources of discrimination.

“However, we found that mental health discrimination has not yet improved amongst health professionals, including mental health professionals. Our findings suggest that it's easier to influence the way people behave with those they are close to, but much harder to change how people behave in more formal roles or within their professional framework.”

Generational issue

Sue Baker, director of Time to Change, said: “We invested heavily in this evaluation in order to learn from it, as a programme of this scale had not been attempted in England before and no other campaign had looked at behaviour as well as attitude change. So it is really encouraging to see these small but significant changes at such an early stage.

“We know that this is the work of a generation like other issues such as racism and homophobia.  That's why this needs sustained, long-term focus, particularly during difficult economic times when so many other factors could be having a negative influence on public attitudes.

“What's extremely encouraging is evidence of the positive impact of knowing someone who is open about having a mental health problem. This evaluation emphasises that those of us with experience of mental health problems ourselves need to continue to be the major driving forces of social change.”